Strike a Blow for the Environment in your own Yard

Senecio aureus

Golden groundsel, Senecio aureus, is the best native plant for ground cover.

I write a lot about the things we do at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens to support the environment: gardening organically without herbicides and chemical fertilizers, doing little supplemental watering, composting, mulching with ground leaves, getting rid of our lawn, landscaping with large quantities of native plants, and promoting natives at the nursery.

Nursery News:  Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.


Carolyn's Shade Gardens Woodland

Our native white-flowered redbud surrounded by native plants.

You can read more about these practices in these posts among others: 

Your Native Woodland: If You Build it They Will Come, how to create your own woodland filled with native plants

My Thanksgiving Oak Forest, the importance of native plants to our survival

Your Most Precious Garden Resource, step-by-step guide to mulching with ground leaves 

Letting Go Part 1: The Lawn, the dangers of lawn chemicals to ourselves and the environment 

Do You Know Where Your Mulch Comes From?, toxic substances in shredded hardwood mulch


Carolyn's Shade Gardens woodland

Our woodland in April with Virginia bluebells, wild ginger, golden groundsel, and mayapples—all native.

My guide to creating a native woodland has been especially popular.  However, most gardeners don’t have vast areas of woods to convert to native plants but still want to make a difference.  And I am sure that most people realize that planting three milkweed plants, though admirable and to be encouraged, is not going to save the monarch butterflies.  So what can you do? 

.Viola striata

Native white violets, Viola striata, used in quantity as an edging along the front of a border.  The violets spread rapidly by seed, filling in empty areas and preventing weeds.

One solution is to find ways to include large quantities—a critical mass—of native plants in your garden, no matter what size.  You can accomplish this by replacing non-native ground covers like pachysandra, vinca, ivy, euonymus, and turf grass with native ground cover plants.  It is easy to do and you can start small by using spreading native plants like the violets above as edging for your existing beds.  Soon you will be eliminating whole swathes of your lawn!  Here are some more ideas of plants to use:

Phlox subulata 'Purple Beauty'
Native ‘Purple Beauty’ moss phlox, P. subulata, used as an edging.

Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue'

This patch of native ‘Emerald Blue’ moss phlox has been in place for at least a decade and requires no maintenance at all.  It is evergreen so is present year round like pachysandra but provides you with beautiful flowers and the native insects with food.  Its mat-like habit excludes all weeds.


Phlox subulata 'Nice 'n White'

Native ‘Nice ‘n White’ moss phlox used to replace non-native vinca, which you can see behind it.  This location is quite shady and the moss phlox thrives.  All it needs is good drainage.


Phlox subulata 'Nice 'n White'

Our original planting of native ‘Nice ‘n White’ moss phlox is filling in to create a solid blanket while we continue to move down the hill adding new plants.


Iris cristata 'Tennessee White'

Native ‘Tennessee White’ dwarf crested iris, Iris cristata, used to edge our raised beds.  I expect these clumps to double in size by next spring.


Senecio aureus

Native golden groundsel, Senecio aureus, the yellow flower in the photo above and the first photo, makes the best ground cover of any native plant.  It spreads aggressively and is evergreen and mat-forming like pachysandra but also produces beautiful, fragrant flowers suitable for cutting.  Like pachysandra it is too aggressive to be mixed with other plants, but unlike the pachysandra in our area it is not subject to alfalfa mosaic virus.


Chrysognum virginianum 4-26-2016 11-47-39 AM

Native goldenstar, Chrysogonum virginianum, is another creeping plant that makes a good edger.


Chrysognum virginianum 4-26-2016 11-47-51 AM

Because the goldenstar was working so well at the edge, we decided to replace a whole section of our lawn with it.


Phlox stolonifera 'Sherwood Purple'

Two years ago we replaced another section of our lawn with native ‘Sherwood Purple’ creeping phlox, P. stolonifera.  This phlox grows in part to full shade and forms a flat, weed-choking mat that stays green all winter.


Aster cordifolius

Native blue wood aster, Aster cordifolius, replaced another section of lawn at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens that surrounded a gigantic black walnut.


Aster cordifolius

Native blue wood aster blooms in the fall and grows in part to full shade.


Doug Tallamy explains in his amazing book Bringing Nature Home* that we can make a difference for the environment and the plants and animals (including us) which are struggling to survive there, by planting native plants in our suburban gardens.  I hope I have given you some good ideas for accomplishing this laudable goal.

*Profiled in my blog post My Thanksgiving Oak Forest.



Nursery Happenings: You can sign up to receive catalogues and emails about nursery events by sending your full name and phone number to  Subscribing to my blog does not sign you up to receive this information.

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 6b/7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

Facebook: Carolyn’s Shade Gardens has a Facebook Page where I post single photos, garden tips, and other information that doesn’t fit into a blog post. You can look at my Facebook page here or click the Like button on my right sidebar here.

Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information. If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.) or to subscribe to my blog, just click here.

27 Responses to “Strike a Blow for the Environment in your own Yard”

  1. You have such a beautiful and inspirational woodland, Carolyn. I do hope to see it soon. Thinking about visiting, but still not sure when. Your lawn replacement areas are very pretty. Tallamy is speaking up here May 10th. Not sure if I will be in town then though. I did see him twice before.

    • Donna, You are so nice. I hope you are visiting soon. Doug has several lectures that he does. I recently heard him at Scott Arboretum on insects and their adaptation methods. You would love that lecture so check and see what his topic is. Carolyn

  2. Hi Carolyn,

    I love your post about using native plants as ground covers! And using natives in general. You have picked my favorite – phlox. My mother called it “Wild Blue Phlox” in her wildflower garden when I was growing up. And I love the golden groundsel and the little golden star, of which I have neither in my garden. That is about to change!
    I don’t believe ANY wildflower garden could look any prettier and better grown than yours. Can Winterthur or Longwood compare? Charles? Sigh. I wish I could instantly drop in and see your lovely flowers.

  3. Hi Carolyn – very inspirational post as I’m on the look out for groundcovers than can hold their own against weeds and spread. I am not so familiar with the common names though since I come to gardening mostly through “book learning.” I am curious about exactly which native violet is that in the above pictures, and can you share the botanical names for golden groundesl, goldstar, and blue wood aster? Many thanks — Klaus

    • Klaus, Glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry about the missing names. I went back through the post and added the botanical names to the first reference to each plant. Please let me know if anything is still missing or if you have any other questions. Chances are other readers are wondering too. Carolyn

  4. Marilyn Fees Says:

    As an American gardening abroad (Germany), it is not always easy to find plants or follow methods. However, I was so pleased to read the post about using leaves for mulch. Our leaves are not collected, nor can we bad grass for pick up. If we cannot, or will not use the leaves and grass, we have to cart it off to the composting site. Like you, I simply rake extra leaves into my beds to compost “an Ort und Stelle”, or I pile them behind taller shrubs to provide over-wintering sites for hedgehogs and other small critters. Our lawns are mulched with the mower, and we have far smaller areas of lawn to deal with. So while things may be somewhat different, I think we, too, are on the right track here. Hope someday I can visit your area. Would love to see your woodland gardens.

  5. Some excellent ideas Carolyn, I have some areas that could use ground covers like you mention, especially under my black walnuts.

  6. Great ideas for a native woodland garden! I especially liked the Redbud surrounded by native ephemerals.

  7. Very inspiring – you’ve made me think hard about where else I can suggest my violas (blue & white) and primula vulgaris might be encouraged to pop up. And they are evergreen, so useful smotherers as you point out. But wish we had more of your native American woodlanders!

    • Cathy, All my violets seed around prolifically, but the white is the only one that does this to form a mat. The others just appear all over the place. I don’t think of them as evergreen, but I guess they do maintain their leaves through the winter. Carolyn

  8. Love this simple method of replacing with native ground covers….I really need to do this!

  9. I recently went to a talk at Fernwood Nursery in Maine about using native plants, including many spring “ephemerals” which keep their foliage all season long in our cool climate, as ground covers. One of the plants that Rick at Fernwood propagates and sells is Pachysandra procumbens, which is native to much of the eastern US.

    • Jean, Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about this plant. US native pachysandra is a great plant and grows well in my garden expanding slowly in the woods. However, it is not a ground cover as in a replacement for aggressive non-natives like Japanese pachysandra, vinca, or English ivy. When home owners want a ground cover, they want something that fills in quickly without buying a lot of plants or dividing over and over again. Until we promote those types of native plants, home gardeners will still use vast expanses of non-natives to meet their needs. That’s what the post is about. I have a lot of customers who have been told to use native pachysandra to replace Japanese pachysandra and they are not happy. Carolyn

      • Carolyn, Thanks for clarifying this. Although I didn’t have a “good groundcover” annotation next to Pachysandra procumbens in my notes from Rick’s presentation, I think I just assumed it was because I associate “pachysandra” with “groundcover” — probably the same mistake your unhappy customers made. 😐

      • When customers use P. procumbens and it doesn’t function as the ground cover they thought it would, they get discouraged with natives generally. That’s why I like to be really clear about what it does and doesn’t do. Loved your post on the Fernwood Nursery in Maine. Here’s a link if anyone wants to read it:

  10. native plants for woodland ground cover, doesn’t get better than that.

  11. I love this site and refer to it regularly. Thanks for the generous sharing of advice and pics of your lovely woodland. I’m gonna move my northern sea oats that I planted last year to a better location (thanks for that.) I’m eager to expand my natives but I too have poor soil and scrubby plants in maybe 500 sq ft of backyard sprinkled with a couple of tall oaks, maples and various pines. Are there particular soil enhancements I should be considering? Do I have to wait a year after laying bunches of leaves? I know it’s not a huge area so I’m looking at maybe 3-4 varieties. Any suggestions on pairing? I’ll have the sea oats to transplant. I’m cultivating Virginia bluebells, Solomon’s seal (and false), Jack in the pulpit and wood violets in other sections of the yard. Thanks.

  12. debsgarden Says:

    Your April woodland is marvelous. I have been thinking about replacing a strip of lawn between our house and the front walk, and your post has given me the idea to use moss phlox. Thanks!

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